A visit to Ohio shows how hard it will be for the Democrats to motivate voters.

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Sept. 21 2010 11:29 PM

Digging Out the Grass Roots

A visit to Ohio shows how hard it will be for the Democrats to motivate voters.

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Ohio landscape. Click image to expand.
What can the Democrats do to win over Ohio?

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Steve Nicholson barely opens the storm door for the Democratic campaign volunteer trying to talk to him about the Ohio governor's race. "I don't care for either one," he says, "I just want jobs." The volunteer says that's exactly why he should vote for the incumbent, Democrat Ted S­­­trickland. "Not voting is a vote for Kasich," she says, referring to Republican challenger John Kasich. "Strickland will be better for jobs," agrees Nicholson, 30. So will he vote? No. Does he at least want a little campaign literature to learn about the race? No. The storm door closes.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Rachel Harris lives two blocks away and sounds at first a lot like her neighbor up the street. "I want the same thing everyone else wants," she says. "Jobs." At 29 years old, Harris is the mother of five and makes $7.50 an hour working as a cashier at a dairy. "I don't know which is which," she says of the candidates. But as the volunteer goes through the slate, Harris softens. "That means good jobs," she says when she hears about renewable energy programs. "Thank you for informing me," she says, promising that she's likely to vote for the Democrats.

For the Democratic Party, the difference this year between a rout and survival may come down to Steve Nicholson vs. Rachel Harris. Neither is likely to vote Republican. But it's unlikely that both will vote Democratic. As Nov. 2 approaches, Democrats face a highly motivated opposition. The search for ways to excite people—not just their core voters but anyone who might be receptive to their message—grows more desperate by the day. "Folks, wake up!" President Obama told a group of Democrats Monday night. "This is not some academic exercise."

Democratic hopes rest in part on Organizing for America, the Obama campaign organization that mobilized such an army for his victory in 2008. In Ohio, OFA has joined with the Democratic Party in perhaps the largest ground effort in the country. They are aided by labor unions. The AFL-CIO has been targeting workplaces and walking the streets talking to its members.

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In their most expansive moments, Democrats talk about OFA as the "sleeping giant" in what looks like a bad year for Democrats. For months Obama adviser David Plouffe has been preaching the gospel that if the organization can motivate a portion of those roughly 15 million first-time voters who came out for Obama, the Democrats will win close contests. President Obama just taped a video message to OFA volunteersasking them to "fight for our candidates as strongly as you fought for me. … I need everyone here to step up their game. We have to have the same energy. The same enthusiasm. … We've just gone through the first quarter. The game is still on."

The quasi-scientific precision of the process sure looks and sounds impressive. Aides talk about "capacity" and "metrics" as if they could produce voters like car parts. In Ohio, they've already reached out to more voters than they had by August 2008, in part because they've added more paid staff. Neighborhood captains who organized for Obama have been working their contacts ever since. The science of organizing says that voter contact is the best way to motivate your voters. Volunteers walk the neighborhoods with sharp-looking maps, black dots marking each house that might have first-time voters or "sporadic Democrats." Scripts volunteers read to voters are tweaked frequently. Each contact is tabulated to gauge motivation for the next round of outreach

In a recent moment of low morale, OFA aides sent around Obama clips from 2008 to remind themselves of the spark that started it all—and perhaps what it used to be like to have hope, enthusiasm, and momentum. Polls in the race for Senate and governor show the Republicans up by 20 percentage points. Ignore the polls, say Democratic organizers who are determined to battle the rising flood waters. But it's hard to tell whether they're stacking sandbags or sugar packets. An afternoon of canvassing for Democratic votes highlights how hard it is to build a robust turnout.

Some of the challenges come simply from trying to motivate voters in a midterm rather than presidential year. There's no presidential horserace to follow. People are unfamiliar with the candidates. (Democrats can take heart that several people said they'd vote for the party even though they were unfamiliar with the candidates.) Conservatives are motivated by the desire for change. Democrats can't use that argument this time. Instead they have to make arguments for patience and herald incremental change, none of which is very stirring.